When Death Comes: Oliver Sacks, Mary Oliver, and Walt Whitman

If I asked you today, “What are your thoughts on death?,” I imagine your answer might well be colored by your recent personal experiences.  It’s hardly a neutral question, and certainly any thoughts and feelings we might have about death on any given day relate in no small part to the current state of our own health, the health of our friends and loved ones, and any funerals we might recently have attended.

That’s true for me as well, of course; and for me, the past month has seen the long, painful death of the beloved spouse of a dear friend; the unexpected but gentle death of the elderly, beloved mother of another friend; the unexpected and shocking death of a young beloved cousin of another friend; and finally, the terrible, painful impending death of a beloved child–the friend of yet another friend.  Beloved, beloved, beloved, beloved.

Death can come as a shock, a relief, a grace, a burden, or a terror–or a hundred other things, I’m sure:  I wonder if any two of us experience death the same way; or if any two deaths are experienced the same way by any one of us.

I was thinking about all these things as I read the wonderful, poignant, beautiful column in The New York Times today by the brilliant scientist Oliver Sacks [author of The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat].  I love his work and his books, but I am finding that even more I am appreciating his dying.  He is dying–no doubt about that:  he has known about it since the beginning of the year and has started writing about it.  This column is the latest:  
Oliver Sacks: My Periodic Table.

It is extraordinarily grace-filled, and I find myself awed by his honesty, his openness, and his deep appreciation for life–his natural curiosity that even his impending death has not dampened.  For example, he took a trip to North Carolina to visit the lemur research center at Duke University–who knew there was such a thing?!  He writes, “Lemurs are close to the ancestral stock from which all primates arose, and I am happy to think that one of my ancestors, 50 million years ago, was a little tree-dwelling creature not so dissimilar to the lemurs of today.  I love their leaping vitality, their inquisitive nature.”  What a wonderful thought to have, so close to death.

He writes, too, of seeing a sky “powdered with stars” [Milton], and saying, “It was this celestial splendor that suddenly made me realize how little time, how little life, I had left.  My sense of the heavens’ beauty, of eternity, was inseparably mixed for me with the sense of transience–and death.”  Life always is mixed with loss, and without dying we cannot have life.

At this point–relatively young [depends on how you define the term, I suppose–I’m sure to high school youth I’m ancient!] and very healthy, I can honestly say that I am not afraid of death:  I don’t fear it, I don’t regret it, and I’m certainly not running from it.  I am, however, afraid of pain and suffering; and I certainly would regret leaving this life abruptly–leaving John and Henry, and possibly not having a chance to say goodbye.  So, I hope that when death comes for me, I can greet her like the sister Saint Francis describes.  I hope that I will be granted cognizance to recognize her for who she is, and to leave those I love with gentleness and peace.  I hope that I will be granted a body only minimally ravaged by pain, still more or less under my control.  When I say it like that, I realize it’s a lot to ask, isn’t it?

But in any case, what will remain–as long as I am still myself at the end–is the absolute theological conviction that death is not the enemy; that human mortality is not the result of sin; and that we leave one form of existence, given to us by a loving God, for another–one even more miraculous than what we have experienced here; a resurrected body even more marvelous than the ones we have had here. [ Maybe in heaven I’ll finally be able to touch my toes!] If we really and truly believe in the resurrection, how can we think otherwise?

There are two poems that are my touchstones when thinking about death–the one is an absolute favorite, the other less-so, but still lovely.  The first I’ve mentioned before, “When Death Comes,” by Mary Oliver.  After recounting different ways death can come–some shocking and surprising [my favorite, “When death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse to buy me, and snaps his purse shut…”], she says, “I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering, What is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness.”  And therefore, she treasures every moment, every body, every being, every name–much like it seems Oliver Sacks is doing–because life here is not separate from life there, only different. 

That’s the message of the other poem I love, too:  “On the Beach at Night Alone,” by Walt Whitman.  “On the beach at night alone….I think a thought of the clef of the universes, and of the future. A vast similitude interlocks all….All lives and deaths, all of the past, present and future, this vast similitude spans them, and always has spann’d, and shall forever span them and compactly hold and enclose them.” 

I am held–always, forever–of that, I am sure.  In this life and in the next.  Not by myself, but with the whole universe:  lemurs, stars, frogs, dogs–all of us together.  And so are you, and so is everyone you have ever loved, or hated, or ignored, or forgotten.  There is such inexpressible grace in that; a special, unique grace that comes only with death.  It’s how we were made.  It’s who we are.  And I cannot lie–I am grateful.

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